It must be a decade and a half since I stumbled across the tiny cemetery on Sciennes House Place. I was idling on a Tuesday afternoon, killing time before a barmitzvah lesson with Rabbi Shapira. I must have glanced to my left, and the Hebrew fonts on those crumbling gravestones roared out at me from between the railings. They stopped me in my tracks.
Up until that point, in Edinburgh, I had seen Hebrew writing in only two public places; in the windy emptiness of Piershill, where we had recently buried my grandfather, and above the small door of the vast hallway of the Salisbury Road shul. Yet here was more, tucked away as though it belonged there. As though there was nothing odd about being Jewish in Edinburgh at all.
For the next few months, I probably went there once a week. Every Tuesday, I’d stare at the stones and eat crisps, until exactly three minutes before four o’clock. Three minutes — that was how long it took to walk from Sciennes House Place to Rabbi Shapira’s Minto Street flat. There was no point in arriving early, because I’d be leaving at five, regardless. If I arrived late, I knew, Rabbi Shapira would be loudly and expansively disappointed, as only an Israeli rabbi can be. True, Rabbi Shapira was bound to be loudly and expansively disappointed anyway, but I preferred it not to happen on the doorstep.
Arriving on time meant a period of teadrinking and encouragement, which was an opportunity for me to ask questions. I liked asking questions. Asking questions put off the moment when I would have to begin reciting my haftorah. Which, in turn, put of the loud and expansive disappointment. Although not for very long.
As a child, it always seemed to me that there were two Rabbi Shapiras — the on-duty Rabbi Shapira of shul, with his luxurious robes and octagonal hat, and the off-duty Rabbi Shapira of my barmitzvah lessons, with his V-necked sweaters and shirts, and his brown, plastic portable telephone clamped to the side of his head.
This, by the way, is no mere euphemism. Rabbi Shapira actually did have a clamp. It was a thick metal thing, like a ruler bent into a U. Inside his home, I never once saw his head out of it. Such was the Rabbi’s devotion to his flock, I decided, he was unwilling to keep a needy member of his congregation waiting for even the few seconds it took to raise a telephone to an ear. And it did ring a good deal.
Initially, I would halt my tortuous, tuneless declamations when it did so. Eventually, Rabbi Shapira made it clear that I should not. “You will face the same distractions, and worse, on the bima,” he told me. This was good advice, even if not, strictly speaking, even slightly true.
My Hebrew was as woeful in my childhood as it is today, and, unusual as these lessons may have seemed, it is a great testament to Rabbi Shapira’s teaching that I understand I managed a perfectly competent performance when the day came. Looking back, I’m not sure we give young boys enough credit for quite how terrifying a process a barmitzvah can be. To sing in a language you don’t understand, in front of a sizeable proportion of all the people you have ever met, all the while reading backwards and inwardly expecting a nearby telephone to explode in a barrage of tinny Hebrew; this is no small challenge for an adolescent to master.
I’m sure it says a lot about the psyche of the Jewish male, all that — the ritualised terror of our early teens. On many levels, it must be an intensely characterbuilding experience. Personally, I don’t actually remember a second of mine. I only remember being in the community hall downstairs afterwards, exuberantly relieved.
Thanks to Cheder, various cousins, and my flickering attention span, I must have spent a good deal more time down there than I have ever spent in my pew upstairs. I gather I’m just old enough to remember when everything happened downstairs, but I don’t. Although I know it wasn’t my first time there, my earliest memory of a shul service is of arriving at the top of the left-hand steps with my father, and being bewildered at the sight of all the men draped in white tallisim down below.
To this day, I maintain that I had never seen such things before. I stated this at the time, loudly and repeatedly enough for my father to grow quite embarrassed and annoyed. For a long time afterwards, part of me was dimly convinced that the entire Edinburgh community had played some kind of elaborate hoax on me. No matter that this would have required the collusion of all other Jews across the globe, and the doctoring of a few thousand years of religious texts — I was positive that there had never been tallisim in my shul before.
It was only quite recently that I quite suddenly realised the source of my confusion. It must have been my first time in the new, upstairs shul. I had never seen the congregation from above before and, as a toddler, I must have never looked up.
More than anything else, the shul was a playground to me, or a youth club. Cheder playtimes were spent rampaging around with Benji Bowman and the Goldberg twins. We tussled, built forts out of those brown, canvas chairs and once, to our abject astonishment, discovered the lightswitch for the Everlasting Light.
As a ten-year-old, it’s hard to comprehend of such a thing. In recalling that moment, I can’t help but think of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, spotting the old man behind the machine. If that sounds disrespectful, then I apologise — it certainly isn’t meant to. We stared at it in horrified awe, and then dared each other to flick the switch. Nobody would — not even the Goldbergs, who I had never known baulk at a dare before (nor, possibly, since).
Over time we discovered a secret route to the nearby sweet shop (clue for future generations: a climb, a window, and then a drain-pipe. But don’t tell a soul) and grew to look forward to, rather than dread, the periodic evening discos, courtesy of the Sweet Inspirations DJs. At the last one I can remember, there was a scandal because somebody’s schoolfriend had brought a can of beer, and Paul Goldberg and I spent most of the evening squabbling over who got to dance with Jenny Sischy. We grew up there.
Yet through all this — and I know it might sound ludicrous — I had no sense of history at all. The shul was dotted with plaques and embroideries, marking that this was donated by such and such a Rifkind, and that was in memory of another, but it was all just so much glitz and wallpaper. Yes, I suppose I knew that my grandfather and various great-uncles and aunts had been in Edinburgh all their lives, and I must have been dimly aware that there were once other brothers and cousins, with lives lived out before I was even born. But it didn’t connect. It was just background noise.
Being Jewish was just this strange little thing that my family did, alongside other families who had been around for so long that they might as well be family themselves. Some families went hiking, some played badminton, we did this. Most importantly, aside from that bleak island at Piershill, it was something utterly unconnected from the world outside the synagogue doors. We were Jewish, and we were in Edinburgh. It was a weird way to be.
And then, just before my barmitzvah, I stumbled upon that tiny cemetery in Sciennes House Place. I wouldn’t want to be melodramatic, and I couldn’t pretend it clicked immediately, but it stirred something for the first time, that has only occasionally been stirred since. Like when I read David Daiches’ autobiography, and he wrote about a Motte Rifkind gossiping with a cousin in shul, just like a Hugo Rifkind and a Richard Rifkind might, many years later. Like when I peered at the black and white photographs that David Kaplan unearthed years later for a genealogy project, all of unrecognisable faces, with utterly recognisable noses and brows.
Yes, it is weird to be from Edinburgh, and to be Jewish. It doesn’t happen very often and, lately, it has been happening less and less. But it has been happening for quite a while now. Go to Sciennes House Place, if you’ve never been before. Take your kids. What could give more comfort to a 12- year-old boy trudging to his barmitzvah lessons, while every one of his schoolfriends is already safely home, watching cartoons?
Here is Edinburgh and here is Jewish, at the side of the road, and carved into the city rock. We belong.
(This article was originally published in 2004 in the Edinburgh Star.)